"You have no idea!" That's all Roger Straus could mutter to Britt Bell when he told Straus of his plans to open his own publishing house. After five years at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Bell, with his wife, Jennifer Moyer, decided to make the jump. "He was right," Bell recalled from his Kingston, R.I., office, where he and a staff of five work. "I had owned bookstores, been a book traveler, been the managing editor of Dial Press and was now the sales manager of FSG.... Jennifer [who died in 2001] and I both loved our jobs, but wanted the American dream, a business of our own. Roger"—who Bell admits was "a surrogate father for me"—"as independent a publisher as I've ever known, vowed to help whenever and wherever he could."
Moyer Bell (and its sister imprints, Asphodel [a non-profit], Papier-Mache, Olmstead, Albion and Acorn Alliance) is known for its diversity of list. At one end there's Pearl S. Buck. At the other end, a biography of Glenn Hall, the Hall of Fame NHL goaltender. Yearly, MB publishes only 12—15 titles (a quarter of which are originals) because "there is a diminishing return above 15 books a year." In the 1990s, Bell published up to 20 books a year and grossed about $1 million annually. "We have backed off about 30%," he said, "and find life and publishing more enjoyable."
With 22 years as an independent publisher, Bell has found the reissue to be a staple of his backlist. This fall he reissued Barbara Gordon's I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can. "This is a seminal work on addiction and recovery," Bell said, "that should never go out-of-print." Next year he will turn to a success story from Moyer Bell's own past and try to repeat history. "We are doing a revised edition of The Lemon Book by Ralph Nader and Clarence Ditlow next spring," he said. "The previous edition—1990—was one of the best advancing titles we've had." This is Nader's follow-up to Unsafe at Any Speed, and Bell is hoping that media appearances by Nader will boost sales.
In fact, Moyer Bell's biggest seller is a 1987 reissue of Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck, with 30,000 copies sold. In all, MB publishes 13 Buck titles and has almost 200,000 Buck copies in print. "My grandmother's enthusiasm for books," says Bell, "and her devotion to Ms. Buck sparked that love in me and served as the catalyst." MB also publishes all but one of Barbara Pym's novels.
"Our role has been as one of the survivors," he said. "We've flourished over the years. In 1998 we received five reviews in the New York Times Book Review. I don't think that will happen again. We are working harder for publicity and getting less. Since we began, we have seen many independents shutter their doors, many independent booksellers as well. This consolidation is very troublesome." He also sees challenging days ahead. "Now the competition is killing some independents. Our literature is going to suffer. Many good writers are not going to get in print."
Moyer Bell has been distributed by Perseus/CDS since 2001 ("Our big brother," Bell called them) and he credited them with "bringing us into the 21st century. We find the books, and they help us find the targets."
"I think the marketplace has certain realities now," said Matty Goldberg, v-p/sales & marketing at Perseus. "Britt and everyone else is reminded of those realities every time you go out to sell a book. The job of CDS [the distribution arm of the Perseus Books Group, which handles 65 other publishers] is to keep publishers informed about what's going on in the marketplace and keep them attuned to what's necessary in order to make sales. A bunch of it is technological or logistical, so we're trying to help MB out in that regard."
Bell is also a big fan of the Internet and the superstores as ways of moving books. "They have been a godsend for our backlist," he says. "Our backlist was jumping with the opening of new stores. This has leveled off. Amazon started helping our backlist and now the recycling of used books is hurting a bit. It is better for the planet, but not for our bottom line nor our authors'."